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Archbishop of York Speaks Out at Third Reading of the Equality Bill.

Tuesday 23rd March 2010

The Archbishop of York made the following speech in the House of Lords....

My Lords, I want to take this opportunity to support Her Majesty's Government's Equality Bill at Third Reading.

Those who are present in this Chamber today, who have also been present for our previous debates on the subject of equality, will know that while there have been areas of this legislation and specific amendments over which I have raised concerns, I have still broadly supported the aims and intentions of the Bill.

That continues to be the case.

The reason why we have all spent long hours discussing this proposed Bill is because we want a workable law on the statute books that really does something positive in the area of equality in the United Kingdom. To lose this opportunity now and scrap the Bill at this late stage would, in my opinion, be a great disappointment especially when so much common ground has already been established. We all tried to be magnanimous – meeting each other half-way.

I agree that what we need to avoid and reject is the bigotry of fundamentalism. I recall the comments by the noble Baroness Deech who rightly reflected that at times equality, human rights and freedom have become in themselves a religion or a philosophical belief. Ignoring older established religions and preventing them from teaching their principles, in the end will only serve in producing a generation that cannot see the point in equality, freedom and human rights – especially when it resembles a juggernaut crushing all other religions before it.

And ending up with the setting-up of a hierarchy of rights, when traditional religious ethics are at the bottom.

And individuals with their human rights become hermetically sealed and atomised from community-belonging and responsibility. For ever echoing the playground diplomacy "It's not fair! It's my human right to trump yours!"

We need to encourage a society where people are allowed to be different. Equality must mean celebrating diversity – and religious tradition and belief must be allowed to be part of this growing diversity.

We need to be wary of creating laws which serve no-one but those working in the legal profession. As the Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord Jonathan Sacks, commented recently: "There are times when human rights become human wrongs. Rights must not become more than a defence of human dignity. When these rights become a political ideology, that tramples down everything in its path, we know we have gone too far."

As the late Lord Denning once observed, the severance of law from morality and religion from law has gone much too far. Although religion, law and morals can be separated, they are nevertheless still very much dependent on one another. 'Without religion, there can be no morality, there can be no law.' Our commitment from these benches to establishing a solid and workable piece of equality legislation demonstrates that crucial interconnectedness.

As we pray, in this your Lordships' House, before every sitting,

"Almighty God, ....we most humbly beseech thee to send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations; and grant that, we having thy fear always before our eyes; and laying aside all private interests, prejudices, and partial affections, the result of all our counsels may be to the glory of thy blessed Name, the maintenance of true Religion and Justice, the safety, honour, and happiness of the Queen, the publick wealth, peace and tranquility of the Realm, and the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same, in true Christian Love and Charity one towards another, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour."

As your Lordships will know, in previous debates concern was expressed about some sections of the Bill.

I believe that the high level of debate and scrutiny with which this was undertaken by all noble Lords, enabled significant improvements to be made to those sections which seemed, in the view from these benches, and those opposite, not to be in the spirit of preserving the status quo, as on the face of the Bill they seemed to imply.

What I and my fellow Lords' Spiritual have called for is not a special role for religion in this legislation – what we want to see is freedom and equality for all, including those with religious beliefs. We must maintain the intermingling of religion, morals and law – balancing the rule of law, freedom and conscience as this country always has.

We have come a long way with this Bill.

Earlier, in Her Majesty's Government's attempt to harmonise all existing law on equality, I felt we had a situation like the one Morecambe and Wise experienced with André Previn.

Previn became exasperated and told Morecambe he was playing "all the wrong notes". Eric stood up, seized Previn by the lapels and menacingly informed him "I'm playing all the right notes—but not necessarily in the right order."

I believe, my Lords, that what we have now is approaching the right order.

This is becoming a stronger piece of legislation by the day, thanks to the discussions we have had and we continue to have. I look forward to the day the Equality Bill makes it onto the statute books and for that reason, I hope that my Lords will join me in backing this Bill at third reading, so it may be sent to another place for enactment forthwith.

To err is human. To forgive is divine.

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